Chance the Rapper made history with his three Grammy wins last night, and they’re all well-deserved—he’s the brightest light in music right now, and the industry benefits from his presence. But there’s a story that’s bigger than Chance: for all the talk of hip-hop not getting its proper due from the Recording Academy year after year, the genre is still leading the way for other the other genres in terms of industry innovation. Hip-hop has a history of leadership through disruption and novelty, and all of this year’s Best Rap Album nominees—during the first year that the category has been televised in recent memory—show that lineage is as fresh as ever.
Lil Chano’s Coloring Book was the first streaming-only album to be nominated in the history of the Grammys. The Grammys are only now catching up, as free albums have been standard rap fare for more than 10 years. Establishment artists like 50 Cent and Drake demonstrated the brand-building potential of the format; visionaries like DJ Screw and OG Ron C created new, experimental styles via mixtapes; artists like Future resuscitated careers with free tapes; DJ Drama was raided, arrested, and nearly jailed for crafting his mixtapes. Chance himself certainly deserves some credit for being the young beacon so undeniable that the Grammys had to change the rules (though they won't admit that), but even his shout out to Drama during the telecast shows that the change is is an acknowledgment for hip-hop writ large. (Both of Chance’s televised speeches getting the wrap-it-up music, despite neither of them seeming very long, seems to show a lack of true respect for what hip-hop has to offer.) As always, hip-hop is ahead.
The innovation doesn’t stop with Chance. De La Soul’s The Anonymous Nobody was the first crowdfunded album to be nominated for a Grammy. The trio has long been a slept-on act in rap but they’ve built an entire career through innovating. Their off-the-wall samples and skits broke new ground in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and when sample issues with Tommy Boy kept their albums off of streaming services, they bootlegged their own music—complete with piracy groups’ metadata—to give it all to the fans for free.
Drake has been seen as an industry leader since he began climbing the charts in 2011, but his market savvy innovation shouldn’t be understated. His commercial achievements marked the first time chart-topping has been achieved on the back of streaming services. While Adele and Beyonce released their albums in very measured, specific ways that ensured maximum returns for the music, Drake (with a two-week, well-compensated, Apple-funded exception) made sure his music was as easily accessible as possible. And the move paid off: Much of the de facto cavernous sound that is dominating music right now has been perfected by Drizzy and his team of producers, and his music is specifically tailored for social media with its tweegram-friendly punchlines and mantras. If anyone felt inescapable in 2016, it was Drake. So even if Views didn’t garner the kind of critical acclaim that the other nominees can boast, its nomination is more of a tacit acknowledgment of his historic run on every chart out there—and that success doesn’t happen without him pushing the culture forward musically and technologically.
Kanye West made history with the listening party-slash-fashion show for The Life of Pablo at Madison Square Garden, and he reconfigured the idea of the album by releasing a living, breathing project that he tweaked and added to in the months following its release. DJ Khaled earned his own rap MVP nomination in 2016, turning his mastery of Snapchat into an expanded audience to earn recognition for his most complete record yet. Finally, Schoolboy Q was one of the best dark horse Grammy candidates yet—Blank Face LP is the most forward-thinking gangsta rap album in years, with its new spins on blues, R&B, and jazz-influenced sounds.
Elsewhere during the ceremony, rap stood out. A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service missed the submission deadline, but they delivered the most subversive performance of the night, with songs that stood up for oppressed people and Busta Rhymes calling out President Donald Trump with a punchline-ready nickname.
Make no mistake: the errors made by the Grammys regarding artists like Kendrick Lamar are unforgivable. And they’re already getting late to acknowledge other innovators like Run the Jewels, Future, Danny Brown, and Young Thug. But if one thing’s for sure it’s that the slow pace of the Grammys will do nothing to stop hip-hop.